When the Henry County Economic Development Council formed, one thing was certain — its members needed to set goals, create a road map for the future.
Some of those goals were identified when the group created its work plan: creating a regional economic development group; hiring an economic development director; improving the county’s website; and becoming a Work Ready Community.
Michael Gritton, director of the Kentuckiana Works, an agency that helps counties apply for Work Ready Community status.
Every state, he said, has a workforce investment board, and in Kentucky that board tries to address 25 priorities set by Governor Steve Beshear.
Work Ready Community is an offshoot of one of those priorities, Gritton said.
“They’re trying to encourage communities that have high education standards already to document that… certification comes from (the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board).”
Counties must apply for WRC status, a process that includes, Gritton said, demonstrating a specific plan to meet goals set by KWIB.
Those goals include a graduation rate of 82.3 percent; nine percent of the county’s working population with a National Career Readiness Certificate within three years and 15 percent within five years; a program addressing soft-skills development; and 25 percent of working adults with at least a two-year degree, increased to the state average of 32 percent in three years and to the national average of 39 percent in five years.
It’s the last one that presents a challenge for Henry County, where just 18.6 percent of adults have at least a two-year degree.
Henry County Public Schools superintendent Tim Abrams said that while many of the WRC goals are things the school district already is addressing, the attainment goals are out of their reach. “The one thing we can’t do as a school is education attainment, I can’t have much effect on that — that’s a community issue,” he said. “But I can have an effect on it long term.”
Abrams said that for Henry, and many other rural counties, it’s simply a part of the county’s agriculture heritage. “We were an agriculture community, and a lot of folks didn’t go on to get two-year technical degrees in that generation,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to change that.”
The rate is improving, he said, “but it’s a very slow change.” A bigger problem, he said, is simply luring the county’s college graduates back home.
Just five of the state’s 120 counties have applied for, and received, WRC status. Another 13 are considered WRC In Progress, and just 35 counties have applications for either status pending.
Gritton noted that becoming a WRC doesn’t guarantee businesses will locate in a given county.
“This isn’t something (KWIB) did because site selection people told them to,” he said. “If you’ve got a county or a set of counties that you’ve got a ready workforce… how would we demonstrate that to the outside world.
“I can’t promise you that it’s going to make any difference. You’re pros at this, you know what’s out here in your economic development market. You know what works.”
In short, he said, it’s an incentive for counties to raise their graduation rates and other metrics.
Henry County Judge Executive John Logan Brent said that in the past, potential business and industry were most interested in what a piece of property has — existing buildings, infrastructure, etc. — than the surrounding workforce.
“Prior to 2008, there was some varied interest (in property),” he said. “Generally, they were looking for buildings that were already here.”
But those buildings weren’t ideal. The former Brunswick building’s ceilings were too low for more than one prospective business. A verneer plant in Jericho was in too poor of a condition for others. And that, Brent said, is one of the county’s biggest obstacles in luring businesses.
“Trying to get a company to build from the ground up is tough when there are so many buildings nationwide, especially when they can be built from the ground up for pennies on the dollar (of renovating),” he said.
“We’ve not really gotten to the point where we’ve talked about workforce.”
One exception to that, he said, is Cedar Lake Lodge, who purposefully built in Henry County because of the workforce.
So what, exactly, is the incentive?
According to the KWIB website, being WRC certified answers the questions of many potential employers, and “indicates that your community is serious about meeting their needs.”
Brent said whether WRC benefits the county or not, the county and the economic development board need goals, and the WRC targets could be part of that.
Abrams said the schools already are pursuing many of the targets that would make the county part of the WRC.
Gritton said while the county wouldn’t meet the WRC standards, it could apply for Work Ready Community In Progress, a status the county could maintain for three years.
He added that Kentuckiana Works would assist the county in the application process, which is free.
The Economic Development Board, Brent said, will continue to discuss the possibility of becoming a Work Ready Community.